A Perfect Explanation by Eleanor Anstruther review

A real-life family mystery is at the core of this debut novel, says Kate Saunders

Kate Saunders
April 19 2019, 12:00pm, The Times

Inveraray Castle, ancestral home of the Dukes of Argyll

A novelist always wants to know why people do things. Eleanor Anstruther’s forebears did some very strange things, and this haunting novel is her attempt to explain the apparently inexplicable. “I’d known this story in potted facts since I was a child,” she writes in her epilogue. “My father was sold to his aunt for £500.” I’m giving nothing away here; Anstruther might as well have put this devastating statement at the beginning, since it takes her an entire novel to arrive at any kind of understanding.

Her father’s mother, Enid, is the mystery at the heart of the story. Why was she such a dreadful mother? What combination of circumstances made her act as she did? She was evidently as mad as a ferret, but was she born mad, or driven to it by the expectations of her family?

We meet Enid in 1964 when she is a bitter old woman in a nursing home. She is expecting a visit from her daughter, Finetta, but discovers at the last minute that Finetta is bringing Ian — the son she last saw 25 years ago, being driven away in the back of her sister’s Rolls-Royce. Enid does not want to see him. “She hadn’t spent 25 years designing a perfect explanation for her life only to have it shot down in one surprise attack.”

The story then jumps to 1921, when Enid is a young wife and mother and already miserable. She lives in the shadow of a lost Eden, looming over her on the other side of the loch — Inveraray Castle, ancestral home of the Dukes of Argyll. Enid’s father, the youngest son of the eighth duke, had to leave Eden when number nine died and the title passed to number ten.

Enid’s brother is killed in the First World War, and she has always felt overshadowed by Joan, her hated elder sister. Although the word is never uttered, Joan is a lesbian and does not intend to have children. This means that Enid (who once fancied becoming a

nun) has one duty in her life — to produce a son who can inherit the family fortune. Seen in this light, it’s not surprising that she can only feel the immense privileges of her background as a burden.

She marries Douglas Anstruther and gives birth to a son, but there is something not quite right about little Fagus. He is clumsy, always falling over, and a terrible accident leaves him nearly blind. “That was the moment Fagus stopped being the great white hope of anything.” Enid feels she has failed in her duty by producing a dud. She gives birth to Finetta, but a female is no use to anyone. By the time Ian arrives, Enid doesn’t dare to love him, for fear of more heartbreak.

Eleanor Anstruther never met this troubled woman, but she recreates her with empathy and compassion in this novel, which has been longlisted for the Desmond Elliott prize for debut fiction. Anstruther’s writing is elegant and intelligent, and the closest possible thing to a perfect explanation.
A Perfect Explanation by Eleanor Anstruther, Salt, 304pp, £12.99